LINCOLN.

My wife and I just got back from seeing Lincoln, which bowled us over—the combined efforts of Steven Spielberg and John Williams (two names that fill the mind with dread) couldn’t mar the brilliance of Tony Kushner’s writing (the language in the script is a thing of joy throughout) and Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting in the title role (his will be the Lincoln of my mind’s eye henceforth). The music is (inevitably) overbearing at times, and (of course) the movie goes on a few minutes too long (see this post), but never mind that; it’s the best movie I’ve seen in quite a while and I recommend it unreservedly.
However, this is not a movie review blog, and I’m writing about it here not to praise it but to complain (mildly) about a couple of linguistic missteps. I’ll forgive them the pronunciation of John Quincy Adams‘s middle name as /’kwinsi/ rather than the correct /’kwinzi/ because the fellow who says it that way is from Kentucky and could plausibly not know any better—if he’d been from Massachusetts, I’d have twitched discontentedly. I did in fact so twitch at two points. The first was when Lincoln pronounced the last word in the phrase “forever and aye” as /ay/ (as in “Aye aye, sir!”) rather than the correct /ey/ (as in “A, B, C”). This is not a matter of dialect or idiolect; in the nineteenth century anyone who used the word would have said it in the only available way (which they would have heard in speeches and sermons, not learned from books). To quote the OED (in an unrevised entry from 1885): “The word rhymes, in the literary speech, and in all the dialects, with the group bay, day, gay, hay, may, way.” The second was when Lincoln is telling his (truly hilarious) story about Ethan Allen going to England after the Revolution and being insulted; when he asks where the privy is located, Lincoln talks about his being directed “thence” when the appropriate word is “thither.” Again, these are words to which dwellers of the twenty-first century are unaccustomed but that no one of Lincoln’s day would have confused. All together, now: tut tut!
Addendum. Ben Zimmer has a nice column on the language of the film. (As he says, “Picky language types may yet find more to poke at.”)

Comments

  1. Oh, misuse of archaic ‘th-’ words makes me cringe so much. I find it especially annoying when the word in question is fairly easy to suss if you replace the ‘th’ with a ‘w’.

  2. There have been some good criticisms of the film. See, for instance, Aaron Bady:
    http://jacobinmag.com/2012/11/lincoln-against-the-radicals-2/
    Also, Cory Robin, Kate Masur, and Eric Foner, etc. who made similar arguments.

  3. Koj, you really think people who don’t understand “thither” and “thence” do understand “whither” and “whence”?

  4. Ever watch “Sherlock” on BBC?
    You’re like the Sherlock of linguistics, stunning in your knowledge of the tiniest details and anal retentive about correcting people who screw them up (I mean that in a complimentary sort of way, I appreciate that sort of personality, strange as it may seem to some people).
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  5. Old Man Murray also notes that aye ‘yes’ and ay ‘ever’ are preferable spellings “on grounds of etymology, phonology, and analogy”. I agree.

  6. Thanks for the link, Kerim Friedman. I plan to see the movie on Hat’s recommendation, and to try to enjoy its artistry (Spielberg notwithstanding) even if I end up disagreeing with its implicit politics (as I think I might); I’m a fan of Foner’s and am gonna try to read his Fiery Trial, which I’ve thitherto only dipped into, the same week I see the movie (hopefully this week, after I bone up on archaisms, so that I don’t look foolish hitherto). I also recently read, and adored, Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right, so I’m feeling even more radical than usual.
    Hat, did you have time to follow Kerim’s link? If so, what’d you think?
    John Cowan, I’ve been meaning to catch you here for months now: I read B.R. Myers manifesto in full, and you were right. He’s right. My only quibble was with his treatment of DeLillo; I thought by focusing on White Noise, one of his weaker books, and by ignoring his talent altogether, he missed an opportunity to make an additional useful argument. Yes, White Noise was praised absurdly, but Myers skewers critical opinion quite thoroughly in his treatment of the other writers. DeLillo is an undisciplined writer of enormous and unusual talent, and maybe his books would have gotten better if critics hadn’t treated him so reverently. John Leonard in the NY Review even said, in his review of The Body Artist (I think), that even though the book was worthless after page twenty — my words, not his — DeLillo was smarter than us, so we should trust him. If someone ever said that about me, I don’t think I’d ever write well again.
    That said, I really just wanted to thank you for making me taking a closer look. The prescriptivism, being much less prominent than in the excerpt from The Atlantic (as I think you told me), was easy to ignore.

  7. Ta-Nehisi Coates had a word or two to say on the politics of “Lincoln”. Not having seen the movie yet (opens January 17th, ugh), I cannot comment on how well the phrase “fetishization of compromise” captures its message, but no matter, it will sure find its use in other, more recent contexts as well.

  8. Jim: “…(hopefully this week, after I bone up on archaisms, so that I don’t look foolish hitherto).” Henceforth ?

  9. There have been some good criticisms of the film. See, for instance, Aaron Bady
    By “good,” you apparently mean “politically correct.” I have little patience for ideological criticism of art, and I lost what little I had and stopped reading when I got to this:

    Now, I’m not questioning this movie on the grounds of historical accuracy, because if you wanted historical accuracy, you wouldn’t see this movie at all. You might go read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, for example, and then you might notice that the entire story that Kushner and Spielberg tell is contained in pages 686-689, a sum total of three pages out of a 900 page book about Lincoln’s presidency.

    That’s so dishonest (“this movie tells a story that’s contained within a few pages of a 900-page book, therefore it’s not accurate”) that it’s reminiscent of Lenin’s attacks on his opponents: any cudgel that will serve to bash someone’s brains out (metaphorically, of course—he left the actual spilling of blood to others) is a good cudgel. I won’t bother to see what Foner et al. have to say about it, because I presume it’s cut from the same cloth.
    I’ve said this before, and apparently it’s time to say it again: art is art, not history and certainly not a program for human perfection, and to judge art by the standards by which you judge historians or politicians is to betray it and impoverish yourself. If you want to refuse to watch Griffith’s movies because he was a racist or read Pound because he was a fascist or Hemingway because he was a misogynist, I can’t stop you, but I can chuckle at your misunderstanding of life and art. And here we’re not talking about anything as vile as Griffith’s exaltation of the Ku Klux Klan, we’re talking about a difference of opinion as to the degree to which Lincoln’s compromises in the cause of emancipation are praiseworthy and the emphasis given to various participants in the events (oh dear, they didn’t treat Thaddeus Stevens with sufficient reverence!). That’s just silliness.
    I contemn and reject all such approaches to movies and to art in general. I loved Oliver Stone’s JFK even though as a historical document it was laughable, because it’s not a historical document at all, it’s a fucking movie. If you’re going to insist that your movies be historically accurate and ideologically unimpeachable, you’re not going to enjoy many movies, and you have only yourself to blame. (The “you” in all this is the rhetorical “you,” not intended to refer to present company, of course.)
    Like Mammy Yokum, Ah has spoken!

  10. Jim: “…(hopefully this week, after I bone up on archaisms, so that I don’t look foolish hitherto).” Henceforth ?
    If you listen closely, I think you’ll hear the faint hum of a joke whizzing above your head.

  11. Ta-Nehisi Coates had a word or two to say on the politics of “Lincoln”.
    And a good word it is, too, as I would expect from one of my favorite contemporary writers on race and politics. I agree that it would have been a good idea to have emphasized the role played by blacks like Douglass, and of course Kushner’s published comments about Reconstruction are asinine (though they don’t affect the movie). The important thing is that he starts and ends by saying he loved the movie and urges people to see it. The man’s got his head screwed on straight.

  12. I noticed the “thither”/”thence” confusion, but my suspension of disbelief was so thorough that I concluded “Oh, I guess that confusion is older than I thought” rather than “Oh, the writer messed up.” Now I feel silly!

  13. I can chuckle at your misunderstanding of life and art
    Go hat!
    it’s not a historical document at all, it’s a fucking movie
    Ah, but there’s the rub. Many an atrocity committed against (one of the facets of that thing we usually refer to as reality) has been justified using these words. No, I don’t expect my movies to display accuracy at the level of a historical documentary (which, by the way, is a pretty low bar). I don’t even expect not to sway in a particular direction (which, I gather, is what both Bady and Coates object to). But I do expect it to get the broad strokes right. Call me crazy, but if a movie portrays the event known as the Battle of Stirling Bridge, I do expect a battle taking place somewhere near on possibly on a bridge. If criticism is levelled at the motion picture in question for the lack of such a bridge in such a scene, it is a legitimate one and the reply “but it’s just a movie” is nothing but a cheap cop out. Bady’s “3 pages” remark is indeed idiotic, but he is right in pointing out that if Spielberg cares about such details as the period-appropriate sound effects, he’d better take as much care in everything else. Anything else is just another case of “form over content” which, pardon my French, I don’t really care for. Of course, I have no way of knowing how “Lincoln” fares in this regards, all I’m saying is that if it indeed does fail, the excuse “it’s just a movie” won’t work.
    Also, a number of reviews bring up “The Team of Rivals”, “The Fiery Trial” and a bunch of other related works. I am consistently amazed at the great number of excellent popular and semi-popular books American historians keep churning out. I’d love to read similar stuff in other languages dealing with other countries, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find that many. Anybody got any tips on anything in, say, French, Portuguese, German, Swedish, Spanish, Danish…?

  14. Jeffry House says:

    Foner’s short letter to the New York Times basically proposed a corrective to the concentration on high politics depicted in the film. The movement of armies, and the abandonment, by slaves, of their plantations, basically meant that slavery was dying on the ground, as well as in Congress.
    To me, that is just as important–perhaps more so! –than pointing out that “ay” was pronounced in a historically-incorrect way in the film. It doesn’t mean the film was bad, it means that when thinking about it, we are entitled to relate it to real events (and speech).

  15. Many an atrocity committed against (one of the facets of that thing we usually refer to as reality) has been justified using these words.
    Oh really? I’ll be interested in hearing what atrocities you have in mind, but I’m quite sure that far more atrocities (of this metaphorical kind) are committed by people who think ideology trumps art, a view on which I spit (as Russian so expressively has it).
    Foner’s short letter to the New York Times basically proposed a corrective to the concentration on high politics depicted in the film.
    High politics is what the film is about. Foner would have made a different movie, and that’s fine, but it has nothing to do with the merits of this one.
    To me, that is just as important–perhaps more so! –than pointing out that “ay” was pronounced in a historically-incorrect way in the film.
    How can I bother my head about pronunciation when people are dying in the Congo?! Sorry, language is my beat.

  16. I’m quite sure that far more atrocities (of this metaphorical kind) are committed by people who think ideology trumps art, a view on which I spit
    Perhaps so. But “art trumps reality” is to me equally despicable as “ideology trumps art” and I fuck on (as Slovak so expressively and somewhat puzzlingly has it) both. Surely there must be, gods help me, some middle ground…

  17. I respect your fervent views but I’m puzzled about what you mean. What does “art trumps reality” imply to you? Is fantasy verboten? And do you think JFK is a bad movie because it depicts unreality?

  18. What, without asking, hither hurried whence?
    And, without asking, whither hurried hence!
    Another and another Cup to drown
    The Memory of this Impertinence!

    This verse from FitzOmar took some puzzling out for me as a boy, but eventually it taught me how to use these words properly.

  19. But “art trumps reality” is to me equally despicable as “ideology trumps art”
    The sentiment is art for art’s sake, not that it trumps or fucks on anything. As for Slovak’s construction itself, that’s just what teenagers do to each other when they’re learning to have sex.
    I’ve said this before, and apparently it’s time to say it again: art is art, not history and certainly not a program for human perfection, and to judge art by the standards by which you judge historians or politicians is to betray it and impoverish yourself. If you want to refuse to watch Griffith’s movies because he was a racist or read Pound because he was a fascist or Hemingway because he was a misogynist, I can’t stop you, but I can chuckle at your misunderstanding of life and art. And here we’re not talking about anything as vile as Griffith’s exaltation of the Ku Klux Klan, we’re talking about a difference of opinion as to the degree to which Lincoln’s compromises in the cause of emancipation are praiseworthy and the emphasis given to various participants in the events (oh dear, they didn’t treat Thaddeus Stevens with sufficient reverence!). That’s just silliness.
    Hat, you know I’m with you on this, and I’m certainly not taking sides before I see the movie, but wouldn’t the appropriateness of gender, racial, or (in this case) political criticism have less to do with how abhorrent an artist’s views might turn out to be than with how directly a piece of art engages those issues? Shit, I have to run; I had more questions, but maybe they’ll turn out to be more pertinent if I start with just the one.
    The line you quoted, BTW, about political accuracy and the few pages of Goodwin’s novel the film was based on, was to me one of the least interesting in the piece, whose politics I found well articulated and agreeable — though obviously, again, not having seen the movie, I have no opinion as to whether or not they add up to good criticism. I may end up as incensed with the piece as you.

  20. wouldn’t the appropriateness of gender, racial, or (in this case) political criticism have less to do with how abhorrent an artist’s views might turn out to be than with how directly a piece of art engages those issues?
    But why should a piece of art engage issues in any way other than that way which helps the work of art to be the best work of art it can be? Grr, just the phrase “engage issues” gets my hackles up. The attentive reader will have noticed by now that I do not take a nuanced view of these matters.
    the piece, whose politics I found well articulated and agreeable
    Well, I tell you what, if you still think I should read it (past the line that pissed me off) after you’ve seen the movie, I will.

  21. Jamessal
    The sentiment is art for art’s sake
    But that’s another problem, one of the function/utility of art. I offer no opinion on that. My problem here is with the relationship between reality and art. Admittedly, they may ultimately prove to be related, but for now, let’s treat them separately.

  22. I completely agree with Language on this. Our generation’s m.o. of judging drama and literature, by how many politically-correct boxes are checked, is (I hope) going to be laughed at by our grandchildren. You get absurd anachronisms like in TV’s Downton Abbey where all the other characters are applauding one of the servants for being a homosexual and all the younger female characters are out finding careers. It’s like the intervening 80 years never happened, but at least no one can complain that TV companies are being beastly to gays & women.
    Bulbul, it’s not exactly what you’re asking for, but there’s a Finnish historical novel about Helsinki, written in Swansk, called Där vi en gång gått that you might like. It’s being shown here on the telly starting tonight (I can’t watch it), it goes from 1905 to 1944.

  23. Hat,
    What does “art trumps reality” imply to you?
    At the basic level, it’s your standard (usually lazy) disregard for reality justified by “it’s just a story/book/movie” as if commitment to accuracy and art (for an admittedly broad definition) were two incompatible things and the latter, well, trumped the former. Historical movies are usually prime suspects – take “Braveheart”, for example. There are many anachronisms and other errors in how it chooses to portray the people and events of that period (the bridge, the kilts, the age of the princess, the introductory incident etc. etc.) and that, for lack of a better term, is not ok. Call me crazy, but if someone goes through the trouble of telling the story of real people name William Wallace or Abraham Lincoln or a real-world event referred to as JFK’s assassination, I think they should strive for accuracy (to the best of our current knowledge). To do anything but is not only bullshit (in the most technical sense) and an insult to the memory of the people in question, but also an insult to me as the viewer. The screenwriter for Braveheart actually said of Blind Harry’s poem that inspired his screenplay that “I know that it spoke to my heart and that’s what matters to me, that it spoke to my heart. ”. Well ain’t that swell.
    Now whether I will accept that insult and enjoy the movie or walk out of the theatre and demand my money back, is entirely up to me and usually depends on the extent of the insult itself and my disposition. “Braveheart” I enjoyed, “JFK” not so much, but that may have had to do with Kevin Costner. In any case, I reserve the right to vehemently (and usually quite loudly) protest the aforementioned atrocities and will not accept the standard excuse.
    Is fantasy verboten?
    Quite the contrary – hell, looking at my Kindle/iBooks, I see that the vast majority of fiction I read falls into that category. The problem of reality in fantasy is that it consists of two parts: that which we call reality before we open the book and the changes made to it by virtue of the contract between the author and the reader which is made the moment we start reading. Essentially, the contract goes “Whereas, the author invites the reader to consider what would happen, if …”
    For crimes against fictional reality, try any sci-fi show that runs for longer than a season (so BSG, Star Trek or Stargate), but those are a separate category. Crimes against the real reality walk a finer line because it usually depends on the story told. Take “Abraham Lincoln: The Vampire Hunter” – its contract says “I’m going to tell you know the secret story of Abe Lincoln” and if you accept it, then it’s all good, because just about any change to the real reality can be covered by that. Some changes wouldn’t make much sense to me – like, say, Lincoln not being elected president – but even those would be ok. Sure, the whole idea of Lincoln as a vampire hunter is as fantasy as it can get, but there is nothing wrong with way the contract in the novel works.
    But take “Prometheus”, nominally a science-fiction movie. I have no problem with the sci-fi aspects of the contract like FTL, the android, the automated operating table, even the Proto-Indo-European-speaking Engineers. What I do have a problem with is how it deals with the real reality (for some detailed analysis, see here). A 100% DNA match between homo sapiens sapiens and the albino giants? No way. Carbon dating on an alien world? GTFO. Again, big deal for me, you may not see it as a big deal and look past it like we all usually ignore stuff like revolvers that fire for half an hour without reloading or explosions with sound in outer space.
    But what was a big deal is the way people acted. Now here’s the major problem: all the “what ifs” of the contract need to be spelled out in one way or another. It doesn’t always have to be explicit – in fact, often in the best works of fantasy it’s not – but it needs to be there. In other words, there is almost always an unspoken part of the contract which goes “the people you will be seeing here are just like the real people”. It makes sense – the author wants you to relate to the characters and so often even alien characters speaking languages with default OSV constituent order like real people seem. So one of the major problems I had with “Prometheus” was that all the people there were just mind-bogglingly STUPID. When they en masse took of their helmets (something no actual scientist would do ever), I literally went “Oh fuck you” at the screen. At that moment, “Prometheus” lost any credibility as a sci-fi thriller and became a farce. Someone actually suggested to me that this was on purpose to which I say bollocks. “Prometheus” may be the best argument against allowing private enterprise to explore space, but it’s not intentionally so, as nothing else in the movie suggests that. Something similar can be said of “Embassytown” – again, I had no problem with all the alien sci-fi aspects, but I had a big problem with the final resolution which was just … Pure bullshit.
    So ultimately, it’s all about the relationship between me and the author. If the author insists that their “vision” or “art” (however defined) is more important than their respect for the facts or my intelligence, fuck them.

  24. Well, while we have different areas of sensitivity, I certainly respect yours, and I entirely agree about Prometheus, which was a piece of shit in any terms but the mindlessly aesthetic (you have to admit that opening sequence was gorgeous).

  25. AJP,
    how many politically-correct boxes are checked
    But it’s not about political correctness, it’s about ignoring some aspects of the historical record. In fact, I think Bady and Coates are making the very same point: that the movie glorifies compromise and ignores the role of the radicals in the events portrayed. Bady adds a lot more, but that’s the gist of it. Whether that’s true or not I cannot say, but I don’t see anything resembling political correctness in Coates’s/Bady’s comments. In fact, if they’re correct, it’s Spielberg and Kushner who are guilty of being PC.
    “Downton Abbey”, now there’s a find example of what I’ve been renting about. Hat, how do you feel about all the anachronisms there and the artistic value of the show?
    Thanks for the tip, AJP. Looks interesting, but I’d prefer non-fiction.

  26. mindlessly aesthetic
    I’m assuming you include Charlize Theron’s participation under that heading :)
    you have to admit that opening sequence was gorgeous
    Oh yes indeed. Which makes me even more angry for all the potential wasted…

  27. I haven’t seen the movie; there are some issues which would be interesting topics for a movie — slaves who owned slaves, blacks fighting for the Confederacy, blacks in New Orleans supporting segregation, the treatment of native blacks in Liberia.
    Also, Hollywood likes remakes, and they like movies with kids asking provocative questions.
    So is everybody hoping I don’t mention Shirley Temple’s The Littlest Rebel?
    Advance her age to twelve or fourteen, and have her discuss issues of segregation, secession, hypocrisy, etc.

  28. I hesitated posting the above; now I’m sorry, I feel a bit embarrassed bringing it up. I’m having second thoughts. It isn’t necessarily a good idea to remake that movie, but it might be plausible that Hollywood might remake it. They’d probably take out the hot-button topics first, though, unfortunately.

  29. it’s about ignoring some aspects of the historical record
    But every movie has to ignore almost all aspects of the historical record. You could make a ten-hour movie about Lincoln that would still have to ignore almost all aspects of the historical record. It’s the cheapest of cheap points to say “Ha, you didn’t talk about X, Y, and Z, so you lose!” They were making a movie with a very narrow focus, and it succeeded brilliantly, in part exactly because of the narrow focus. The only decent biographical movies are those that ignore almost all of a life to focus on some small, revealing segment of it. (There have been a couple of good movies like that about John Lennon; there have been zillions of terrible movies about all sorts of historical figures that tried to cram the entire life in.)
    Hat, how do you feel about all the anachronisms there and the artistic value of the show?
    I have to confess I enjoy the show (in fact, my wife and I bought the DVDs of the first two seasons and are looking forward to the third), but its artistic value is virtually nil—it’s the televisual equivalent of snack food—so the anachronisms don’t bother me all that much, although I do mutter about them.

  30. bulbul’s “here” link (about Prometheus) doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.

  31. “all the younger female characters are out finding careers”: but there was a lot of that in the years after the First World War, caused by the deaths in the war and a piece of enlightened legislation in 1919 that opened lots of careers to women.
    “A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise), [and a person shall not be exempted by sex or marriage from the liability to serve as a juror][3] …”

  32. Zimmer: “imbuing vintage 19th-century dialogue with contemporary ­vibrancy”. Is that contemporary as in contemporary, or contemporary as in present-day?

  33. bulbul’s “here” link (about Prometheus) doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.
    No, and I can’t figure out why; I tried to fix it but couldn’t get it to work. Here’s the URL (which does work; I’m listening to it now):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osBFSuTRTqk&feature=related
    It’s a nice demolition job.

  34. Just listening to the quotes from the movie makes me cringe: “There’s a sun in one of them!”

  35. I have not seen the movie, have long thought that Spielberg relies too often on a kind of emotional extortion in lieu of more honest story telling, and yet I’m more or less dumbfounded at the criticisms evinced by Robin, Masur, et al. After reading the Robin piece and much of the ensuing commentary, all of his criticisms can be reduced to the prosaic point that Spielberg didn’t make the movie that Robin would have made. This is par for the course with Robin who is so impressed with his opinions on many matters outside of his area of putative expertise that he is generous to a fault with those opinions.
    Even Ta-Nehisi Coates falls prey to the I-would-have-done-it-different commentary to an extent but also as per usual his critique is basically thoughtful and discerning.
    Even so LH, as to thoughtful etc., not of course as to falling prey! I bow to your perspicacious linguistic chops, was delighted by the note on Lincoln’s mispronunciation of ‘aye’, particularly since I would have erred as did the movie’s Lincoln.

  36. but there was a lot of that in the years after the First World War, caused by the deaths in the war and a piece of enlightened legislation in 1919
    Fair enough dearie, but probably not that much of it, otherwise the increase in the number of working women during WW2 wouldn’t have been so significant.
    I have to confess I enjoy the show (in fact, my wife and I bought the DVDs…
    It’s a bit worrying how we all like it so much. I think it may be like smoking crack or eating doughnuts. “It just seemed so…easy, and now our lives are in pieces. We sit in the living room all day, with the shades drawn, replaying the scenes of Sybil’s death and the subsequent cricket match.”

  37. Sybil’s death
    Damn it, Crown, we haven’t seen that episode yet over here. No more details!

  38. But that’s another problem, one of the function/utility of art. I offer no opinion on that. My problem here is with the relationship between reality and art. Admittedly, they may ultimately prove to be related, but for now, let’s treat them separately.
    Bulbul, you’re right — they’re quite different issues, both equally thorny, and you made clear which one you were addressing. Caught up mulling the function/utility one, I was also admittedly in too much of a rush to read all the comments well. Apologies.
    Well, I tell you what, if you still think I should read it (past the line that pissed me off) after you’ve seen the movie, I will.
    Sounds wise. This thread already contains more than a few troughs for thought. Even if the questions themselves are bound to satiate me at least, the movie itself would provide a place to start.

  39. You get absurd anachronisms like in TV’s Downton Abbey where all the other characters are applauding one of the servants for being a homosexual and all the younger female characters are out finding careers.
    I didn’t find the show’s treatment of Tom’s homosexuality that anachronistic. Artists today often tend to exaggerate how hostile people in the past really were to actual homosexuals they knew. Someone in the NYRB pointed out last year that if the show were really to be true to the times there should be hints of a prior homosexual relationship between the Earl and John Bates, because it was supposedly not uncommon for high-born British officers to develop intimate relationships with lower class men in the army and then bring them home as “valets.”
    Downton’s worst PC anachronism, as far as I’m concerned, is the way Tom Branson is depicted. The writers apparently think showing Tom feel guilty and distressed about advocating violence against the English and burning down some Protestant Lord’s estate makes him a more sympathetic character. But of course in spirit of the time we should actually see Tom as a traitor and a sell-out (speaking as a Boston plastic Paddy).

  40. Sorry, Ø. I didn’t realise it hadn’t been shown. On the other hand ‘Sybil’ was the only female character’s name that I could think of. I don’t in fact think that’s the one who died (…or has she died? We still don’t know.)
    Vanya, I found the treatment of homosexuality all wrong. All the characters were so matter-of-fact about it, especially Lord Thing. The butler’s attitude just makes him appear exasperatingly old-fashioned, whereas even recently (post WW2) the subject was surrounded with murkiness, and books had names like The Well of Loneliness.
    I agree about Ireland, but as John Croce wrote in the Guardian, it seems like Julian Fellowes got all his facts from The Ladybird Book of History.

  41. hat,
    They were making a movie with a very narrow focus
    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind that and in fact, I think it’s a great decision, too – I too prefer biopics of the type “a day in the life of”. It gets tricky, however, when when such movies try to describe the bigger picture through the prism of the smaller one and that’s when stuff gets lost.
    But again, I’ll reserve my final judgment until I’ve seen the movie. January 17th. Yeah, right. But “Thor” the we get same day it comes out in the US.
    jamessal,
    no worries. Thanks for the link to B.R. Myers’ manifesto, btw. I do hope you’ll be able to share with your thoughts on the issues discussed here and there.

  42. “probably not that much of it, otherwise the increase in the number of working women during WW2 wouldn’t have been so significant”: that’s because the unions insisted on expelling women from the factory jobs they had had in WWI, so there was a second surge into the factories in WW2. The legislation effectively opened non-unionised work to women (or, at least, confirmed that it must be held open); clerical and professional particularly – the mother of one of my friends, for instance, trained as an accountant under the new law. The unions would have kept her from training as a fitter if the idea had ever entered her head.
    WKPD says that the law was scarcely tested in court, implying to me that in part (i) it went so much with the grain of public opinion that it was rather uncontentious, but (ii) no-one was prepared to waste their time taking on the power of the unions.

  43. But again, I’ll reserve my final judgment until I’ve seen the movie.
    I look forward to hearing what you think. (If I’ve closed comments on this post by then, remind me to reopen it.)

  44. Tolstoy on Lincoln.
    I’m sorry, Tolstoy was a wonderful novelist and an inspiration to us pacifists, but he was no use whatsoever as a movie critic.

  45. Tolstoy in a Lincoln?
    no-one was prepared to waste their time taking on the power of the unions.
    Well they managed to do it quite effectively in 1926. My great uncle became a policeman for a couple of weeks.

  46. jamessal,
    no worries. Thanks for the link to B.R. Myers’ manifesto, btw. I do hope you’ll be able to share with your thoughts on the issues discussed here and there.

    Thanks, Bulbul. And yes, I plan to. We’re gonna try to see Lincoln tomorrow night, if the day doesn’t wear us out.

  47. anything in, say, … Portuguese, …?
    Laurentino Gomes has won several Jabutis for a (planned) trio on pivotal years 1808, 1822, 1899. I gather that like here the non-fiction category is typically dominated by autoajuda.
    Understand that I haven’t read either of them, though. Importers in the States want $51.00 for just one, when both together are on sale in Brazil for R$29,90.

  48. Thanks MMcM, I will definitely try to get a hold of Gomes’ books. Seriously, with a (sub)title like “Como uma rainha louca, um príncipe medroso e uma corte corrupta enganaram Napoleão e mudaram a História de Portugal e do Brasil”, you’d just have to.

  49. Did I say “Tolstoy on Lincoln“? I did not. Tut tut [ǃ ǃ].

  50. In a nearby parallel universe, the word we have as “this” is spelled and pronounced “hat”, completing the paradigm:
    here : there : where ::
    hither : thither : whither ::
    hence : thence : whence ::
    *hat : that : what

  51. “Well they managed to do it quite effectively in 1926.” Nobody was likely to take on the unions in the courts to get access to an industrial job. If you won your suit and started work, you’d be bound to suffer an “accident”. Just not worth it. Whereas signing up for a situation where a whole team of you might hope to be allowed to be nearly as violent as union men often were, that’s quite different. Not that your uncle… etc etc.

  52. narrowmargin says:

    I’m glad to know that “aye” is pronounced to rhyme with “bay” (when used to mean “ever”), because I just came across it in The Tempest.
    It’s in Act II, Sc. 1 and, in my three editions, it falls on lines 279, 280, and 285.
    I’m glad because none of those editions glosses the proper pronunciation. Not even the one edited by the late great Frank Kermode.

  53. Okay, I saw it. And though I didn’t like it nearly as much as Hat or, it seems, a few commenters, none of my objections was political. The movie is much more a story than a political statement; it’s not agitprop, it doesn’t have any ax to grind, and it’s accurate enough not to be misleading. Aaron Brady’s piece raises some interesting historical points, but it’s not fair to the movie. He should have framed his writing differently, as worthwhile history that might now reach a wider audience, not as criticism. A good review might spend a few sentences explaining that while the film focuses solely on politics, it’s also worth remembering, if you’re interested in the history of slavery, that abolitionists made the arguments displayed in the movie possible in the first place and that black slaves did a lot on their own to free themselves, many of them risking their lives to bolt north as soon as the war broke out, well before Lincoln even issued the Emancipation Proclamation; but it — the hypothetical good review — should spend most of its ink on the artistic merits. (Hat and Grackle had it just right when they said some of these critics were saying nothing more than that they wished that Spielberg and Kushner had made a different movie). Not that I think this is true of all movies; American Violent, a film about the drug war whose politics I embrace, was pure agitprop and deserved to be treated as such. To hold that all movies are immune from political (or racial or gender) criticism is, ultimately, to castrate them. From Zoe Heller’s piece in the current NY Review on Salman Rushdie’s memoir (a piece worth reading itself):

    On February 15, 1989, a day after the Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa condemning him to death for his authorship of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie appeared on British television and announced that he wished his book had been “more critical” of Islam. As he reports in Joseph Anton—a memoir he has chosen to write in a de Gaulle–like third person—his principal emotion at the time was one of bafflement:

    When he was first accused of being offensive, he was genuinely perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation; an engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a proper one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive? The thin-skinned years of rage- defined identity politics that followed taught him, and everyone else, the answer to that question.

    Given how often Rushdie has been accused of writing The Satanic Verses with the express purpose of making trouble, it is understandable that he should wish to highlight the unexpected—the unprecedented—nature of the events that followed the novel’s publication. Even so, his retrospective account of himself as a bookish innocent, bewildered by the world’s coarse intrusion into the literary sphere, seems a little over-egged. By this point in his career, Rushdie, who had already been sued by Indira Gandhi for libelous statements in Midnight’s Children and had already seen his third novel banned in Pakistan, was better qualified than most to appreciate literature’s capacity for eliciting hostile, nonliterary responses.
    More troubling, however, than his exaggerated claim to naiveté is the case that Rushdie seems to be making for fiction’s immunity from political or religious anger. In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend.

    I hope the connection is as obvious as I think it is. But to return to Lincoln and its artistic merits: I did, of course, enjoy the language and the acting, and the depiction of Lincoln really was spot-on: admiring but not hagiographic. But for one thing, the music is both terrible and obtrusive and, for another, the movie itself is about an hour too long. A two-and-a half-hour movie almost strictly about a major historical event — a vote, no less — simply can’t be suspenseful, and yet instead of accepting that fact and either cutting the film to ninety minutes or using the extra time to introduce more psychological and even political complexity, Spielberg (and even Kushner a bit) couldn’t help following the same old Hollywood formula, raising the stakes for the main character (if his older son is killed . . . wait a minute, he wasn’t), cutting away from the climactic moment — the vote — all for something that could not be achieved: suspense. Two and a half hours, and the radical Republicans all had to be represented by only one of them? Ditto for the Dems and conservatives. Forget the political arguments — I’m talking about characters. Benjamin Wade made an appearance, but there was no mention of his being both an abolitionist and an intense racist, because that would have been too complex; in Lincoln the radical Republicans all think one way, the conservatives another, and the Democrats yet another. Why? Seriously. Why does a movie that long focused on one event have to simplify things like that? To make room for tearful faces? And what was that little misdirect with the theaters at the very end? For Civil War literates to pat ourselves on the back for thinking before the interruption, “That doesn’t look like Our American Cousin“?
    Again, don’t get me wrong: there was a lot to like. Day-Lewis and Kushner did amazing jobs. And there were brilliant moments, like when Stanton couldn’t take another fucking folksy Lincoln story, even though we’re slavering for it, they’re all written and performed so well. I just thought Spielberg did too much damage, almost with his score alone, for it to be a great movie.

  54. While I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it as much as some of us, I can’t disagree with any of your points except to say I think “an hour” is pardonable overstatement—certainly more could have been cut than those last sappy minutes, but I didn’t care because I enjoyed even the perhaps unnecessary scenes so much (Kushner! Day-Lewis!). But “terrible and obtrusive” is, alas, entirely accurate; how I wish John Williams would find another way to line his pockets!
    Now we await bulbul’s report…

  55. Oh, and my wife, Robin, agrees. And unlike me, she’s immune to criticism or even contradiction. That’s right, I’ve castrated her.

  56. I think “an hour” is pardonable overstatement
    Forty minutes is as low as I’m willing to go. I also enjoyed the perhaps not wholly necessary scenes with Day-Lewis, who does deserve yet another Oscar; there weren’t all that many scenes I wanted cut entirely. But there were few scenes that I didn’t think could have been shorter. If Spielberg had found another composer, and restrained himself from drawing out each scene, showing off his chops — like a writer taken with the mellifluousness of his own voice — he could have made a little gem of an historical drama.
    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it as much as some of us
    Thank you, though I have enjoyed this as much as any movie. The most recent competition would have to be Killing The Softly, an adaptation of a Walter Higgins novel, author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. All the critics I’ve read haven’t been able to help taking a shot at it for its allegory being obvious, but the movie doesn’t try to be subtle; it’s a straightforward crime drama and an equally straightforward allegorical critique of capitalism and depiction of the distance between politics and ordinary struggling people. It’s an hour and forty minutes that feels like a half-hour. Brad Pitt is perfect. I think his character will linger in my mind longer than Day-Lewis’s, if only because Killing Them Softly left me wanting more.
    Now we await bulbul’s report…
    Indeed! What can we do to make him hurry? I mean, just in case, where can we apply pressure?

  57. To the distributors who are opening it January 17 in Slovakia?

  58. Ah, this’ll be trickier than I thought. But I’ll make a few calls.

  59. “it’s not a historical document at all, it’s a fucking movie”
    If it pretends to a certain degree of accuracy and truth, but not all, where are observers to assume the line is drawn? For a great many persons this will be the only exposure to the character of Lincoln that they ever have.

  60. You’ve got to be kidding me. Lincoln is the most overexposed figure in American history; I doubt there’s even a single person for whom “this will be the only exposure to the character of Lincoln that they ever have.”

  61. Well, there are probably a fair number of people for whom Lincoln is simply
    - a tall man with a certain face and beard
    - who grew up in a log cabin and read by firelight
    - and split rails
    - and freed the slaves
    - and was shot dead.

  62. And this movie is not going to change that situation, no matter how it handles the Radical Republicans. People do not learn the subtleties of history from movies. Those people you mention will come away from this movie with the added impression that he had a surprisingly high voice, which is true, so score one for Spielberg and Day-Lewis!

  63. Those people you mention will come away from this movie with the added impression that he had a surprisingly high voice, which is true
    Also — off the top of my head — that the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure, which freed slaves only in the Confederacy; that Lincoln’s issuance of it was completely at odds with one of his own most important and oft-repeated arguments about the Civil War — that it wasn’t a war, really, but just a rebellion in a still unified nation state (how can you assume wartime powers if you’re not at war?); that partially because of that inconsistency, Lincoln was thought of by many as a tyrant; that his Secretaries of State and War were named Seward and Stanton; that his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was vain and insecure, and spent considerable money to redecorate the White House — to Lincoln’s great embarrassment — during the most tumultuous time in American history; that the couple lost a young son; that the 13th Amendment was passed just before the end of the war, with a very close congressional vote; and that the war ended officially in 1865 at a courthouse in Appomattox, VA.
    Regardless, and not to be rude, but this is an exceptionally silly slippery slope: “If it pretends to a certain degree of accuracy and truth, but not all, where are observers to assume the line is drawn?” Slippery slopes are bad arguments in general (we can draw lines case by case), but that one seems to hold that movies should only be made for people too stupid to distinguish between documentaries and historical dramas.

  64. Hear, hear!

  65. Jimsal: I don’t know much about the US civil war. What’s the best history, and what’s a good biography-slash-book-about Lincoln?

  66. What’s the best history
    I can’t swear that it’s the best, but James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is fantastic, and couldn’t be more highly regarded. Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative is also a classic, though I haven’t read it. I’m under the impression that it’s more sympathetic to the South, though not Lost Cause history (the term for historical pro-Confederate propaganda).
    what’s a good biography-slash-book-about Lincoln?
    I loved Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, an intellectual biography that also covers the broad strokes; but there are too many great books on Lincoln for me to ever even skim half of them, and there are just too many books overall to count. Right now I’m really enjoying Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which (obviously) focuses on Lincoln’s relationship with slavery. Foner’s probably the foremost authority on Reconstruction.
    The Teaching Company is fabulous on both Lincoln and the Civil War; I discovered most of the books I’ve read through their course guides. Allen Guelzo teaches the biography of Lincoln, and there’s another excellent course that dissects his speeches and debates (both are only twenty bucks right now — an absolute steal). The main Civil War course (unfortunately not on sale now) is taught by Gary Gallagher, the same scholar who wrote the biography of our host, a Confederate General, if you can believe it.

  67. Ah say— Ah say— Ah resemble that remahk, suh!

  68. His friends generally called him “Dod”.

  69. Jimsal, thank you for going to so much trouble, with all the links and everything. I’ve a feeling I’ve asked you the same question about the civil war before. This time I’ll make a copy of your answer and buy some of the books. Maybe I’ll even try The Teaching Company.
    His friends generally called him “Dod”
    or “General Hat”.

  70. Just to stir the pot again, are the historical distortion on Zero Dark Thirty, specifically the claim that CIA-style waterboarding was essential to the discovery of bin Ladin, more problematic than the distortions in Lincoln? In principle I think the answer must be no, but I find them a lot more disturbing (although I have not seen the former movie and don’t mean to).

  71. Of course they’re more problematic, because they are part of and can affect an ongoing and deadly serious debate about how to deal with suspects in the “war on terrorism.” To claim, as the movie does (and various stupid TV shows), that torture works and is necessary for national defense is about as vile—or, if you prefer, problematic—as it gets. By comparison, the oversimplification of the radical Republicans in Lincoln has no consequence that I can see for the world at large. I repeat, movies are not history, and anyone who thinks they’re learning history from movies is a fool; movies can, on the other hand, be very effective propaganda. I have no intention of seeing Zero Dark Thirty, and I hope it gets few awards and is soon forgotten.

  72. According to imdb, Zero Dark Thirty has Sex & Nudity, Violence & Gore, Profanity, Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking, Frightening/Intense Scenes, but I’m still not going. I’m boycotting the cinema. My wife & I went to see a movie this year, and it was absolutely appalling. I can’t remember what it was about, only that it was much too loud (and I’m quite deaf).
    Even well-respected works of history can be quite tendentious. History too is very effective propaganda.

  73. Just to stir the pot again, are the historical distortion on Zero Dark Thirty, specifically the claim that CIA-style waterboarding was essential to the discovery of bin Ladin, more problematic than the distortions in Lincoln? In principle I think the answer must be no
    I’m not so sure. Whether or not torture is justified in American attempts to destroy Al Qaeda is an ongoing debate, and that’s an important difference. There’s a reason Aaron Bady began his piece with the false assertions that “Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln is about Obama” and that “[the film] is, in short, a barely veiled argument that radicals should get in line, be patient, be realistic.” Lincoln is about our 16th President, not our 44th, and the only ongoing arguments depicted in it (let alone made by it) are also perennial to representative democracies in general.
    Because Osama bin Laden was killed only a year and a half ago, and because attitudes toward him remain intricately linked with opinions about national defense — opinions held by the people who elect our leaders — a film largely about him, Osama bin Laden (not a generic terrorist with a few overlapping traits), has some responsibility not to mislead its viewers: certainly more than an historical drama set a hundred and fifty years ago. Now that doesn’t mean Zero Dark Thirty should be held to the standards of a documentary or that if it does mislead it can’t still be a good movie; it just means we shouldn’t be hamstrung in our appraisal of it by the criteria we use to judge another movie with some similarities. We should be cautious in establishing overarching principles.

  74. I should add, after seeing Hat’s comment — I started mine, left to do something, then returned and finished without refreshing the page — that this is the first I’m hearing of Zero Dark Thirty and that therefore I was, necessarily, speaking wholly in the abstract. Of course, the film may in fact be utterly vile.

  75. anyone who thinks they’re learning history from movies is a fool; movies can, on the other hand, be very effective propaganda.
    I agree with both clauses in this sentence but also find that “on the other hand” problematic. One of the reasons propaganda can be so effective is that many people are fools, and Crown is right, history can be propaganda too. Lincoln isn’t, but then Zero Dark Thirty might not be either. Denby seems to have it in perspective:

    In “Zero Dark Thirty,” the masterly new movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, a C.I.A. field agent has an Al Qaeda operative in his grip. The agent, whose name is Dan (Jason Clarke), a tall, handsome guy with a bushy brown beard, subjects the prisoner to “enhanced interrogation”—a full complement of pain, naked humiliation, and waterboarding. “This is what defeat looks like,” Dan tells the operative, who is named Ammar (and is played with sympathy by the French actor Reda Kateb). These words are spoken at a C.I.A. “black site,” in Pakistan, in 2003. But most of the movie is about American defeat—the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, as Al Qaeda pulls off attacks in Saudi Arabia, Britain, and Pakistan. “Zero Dark Thirty” chronicles a long trail of frustration, leading to fragmentary gains and, at last, to success, on the night of May 1, 2011: Operation Neptune’s Spear, a Navy seals siege of bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, which is so perfectly executed that it almost defies normal skepticism about the way life works. The virtue of “Zero Dark Thirty,” however, is that it pays close attention to the way life does work; it combines ruthlessness and humanity in a manner that is paradoxical and disconcerting yet satisfying as art. Ammar may be working for Al Qaeda, but he’s also a human being, and he’s suffering. Yet, in attempting to show, in a mainstream movie, the reprehensibility of torture, and what was done in our name, the filmmakers seem to have conflated events, and in this they have generated a sore controversy: the chairs of two Senate committees have said that the information used to find bin Laden was not uncovered through waterboarding. Do such scenes hurt the movie? Not as art; they are expertly done, without flinching from the horror of the acts and without exploitation. But they damage the movie as an alleged authentic account. Bigelow and Boal—the team behind “The Hurt Locker”—want to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time, and the contradiction mars an ambitious project.

    I probably won’t see Zero Dark Thirty either, but that’s only because I didn’t like The Hurt Locker all that much. I don’t see how you can insulate Lincoln from all criticism of any possible negative effect on the world while also condemning Zero Dark Thirty and, I’m guessing, 24 wholly and on principle because of one distortion. 24 isn’t the purely evil propagandistic machine a lot of people assume it to be.
    Now look at what you’ve done, John — the stove’s a freakin’ mess!

  76. Oh, Crown, BTW, if you’re still looking for a crime drama with almost no police involvement, Killing Them Softly fits the bill perfectly. Any movie adapted from a George V. Higgins novel probably would, though there are surprisingly few considering that the books read like screenplays. Killing Them Softly and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I haven’t seen, might be the only ones.

  77. Thank you. For once, it’s a film that’s actually playing locally. Ideally I’m looking for a novel in which the crime is never discovered (but not one written by the perp, thanks).

  78. I can’t trace this quotation, so it’s probably not quite right: “There has never been a story — and that is well, for no one could bear it — in which the tragedy of the protagonists is that they never met.”

  79. Ah, got it! It’s the final line of Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo, of which the narrator and viewpoint character is the tragic actor Nikeratos:

    All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play? Fate deals its stroke; sorrow is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death, or triumph; there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make a tragedy — and that is as well, for one could not bear it — whose grief is that the principals never met.

  80. That’s a great quote, John, as well as an interesting point. It would be really hard to write such a story without its being boring or on the nose.

  81. I like the idea of two main characters not meeting and thereby creating a tension. It wouldn’t have to be a tragedy at all, it could be a comedy. Most of us know 5,000 people or fewer in a world of several billion, so, if you consider the non meeting of some ideal person to be a tragedy, it’s a very commonplace one.

  82. I like the idea of two main characters not meeting, it sounds like something Hitchcock might have tried. So much of life is about not knowing what’s going on (which is why I like the undetected crime idea). I should imagine it would be hard for the two characters to not know of one another’s existence all the way to the end of a story, unless it were a short story. It would be great if someone were to pull it off, though. I nominate Jim.

  83. Fuck this computer. Pressing the ‘post’ button is like tipping what you’ve written into a black hole.

  84. Crown: Oh yes, of course. The Menaechmi, known to the English as The Comedy of Errors, depends for its whole effect on the Antipholuses and the Dromios never having met. They do meet in the end, because it’s a romantic comedy; if it had been an ironic one, they might well not have.
    But that 2000-year-old New Comedy tradition of the foolish lovers and their foolish parents and the tricky slave who makes the action go and all, that has held the stage and the screen from that day to this, barely existed before Alexander’s time. Indeed, Nikeratos refers to it only in passing, saying that his company has added one such play to their repertory, because tragedians might as well play it as old-time (i.e. Aristophanic) comedians.

  85. That’s interesting, John. Is there a lot of contemporary discussion of Greek drama or literature to be found somewhere?

  86. My source for much of this is Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, which I recommend to anybody interested in the formal structures underlying all of literature. It is a sort of technical conspectus of the whole subject. It’s online in searchable full text
    Another excellent source, which gives me the comparison between Aristophanes and W.S. Gilbert that I have run my mouth about previously, is Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. Both of these books are now classics.

  87. Thanks! I once bought a book like that by Christopher Booker (global-warming denier & first editor of Private Eye), but it turned out to be impenetrable.

  88. Tragedy of not meeting? How about Jaufre Rudel?
    “According to his legendary vida, or fictionalised biography, he was inspired to go on Crusade upon hearing from returning pilgrims of the beauty of Countess Hodierna of Tripoli, and that she was his amor de lonh, his far-off love. The legend claims that he fell sick on the journey and was brought ashore in Tripoli a dying man. Countess Hodierna is said to have come down from her castle on hearing the news, and Rudel died in her arms.”

  89. Still waiting for bulbul’s review…

  90. I should add that the stuff about India in The Greek Way is mostly exoticized nonsense and should just be ignored. India has a tradition of science and reason that’s just as old as Greece’s, only less known (except to historians of mathematics).

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